Disclaimer: Ashen, despite her most fervent wishes, does not own and does not have any relation to Gundam Wing and its affliates. Ashen is not making any profit from writing this, nor does she have permission to.

Pairings: 1x2x1, probable mentions of 3x4

Summary: Duo's exhausted, overworking himself to the point of death- and he welcomes it all with open arms. But then he finds mysterious drawings appearing, showing him what he'd lost, and he begins to rethink his life...


A Thousand Words

One


A picture is worth a thousand words. – Napoleon Bonaparte


It was midnight again. Past midnight. God he was tired. Twenty-four seven cafés were a godsend; he didn't know what he'd do without them. Buy ration bars by the carton, probably. At least he could carry ration bars around, and gnaw his way through them whenever he was hungry. Right now he didn't even have the time to do that – eat when he was hungry, that is. If it wasn't for the coffee and the midnight food he'd starve. The ration bar idea sounded good, if only to keep himself alive, though the taste might just kill him instead.

Dammit, he'd grown so soft, there was a time he'd be happy for even half a bar, it was that bad, but now he couldn't imagine going back to that. The war was hell, yet this – he supposed this was a more organized modernized form of it. Paperwork, red tape, he'd take the war over this any day, at least he'd been running on adrenaline then. Now he was running on autopilot. On the obligation he had to keep his company going, provide jobs for those people he hadn't managed to kill, do his bit for peace. Penance for what he'd done in the war. He knew that no matter what he did it'd never be enough, but his body was telling him something else.

Kill me now instead of killing me slowly, it was telling him.

God he was tired.

Steering wheel, brake, gear stick, stop. He stared blankly at the windshield and then turned the key. The engine died, he opened the door, forced himself out of the car. He wanted to sleep, but he knew he needed this once-a-day meal. He wished he'd never found out the difference between want and need, or trained himself to do the latter in spite of the former.

Bright lights, door, empty booth, sit. The cushion of the seat was soft, the table hard, but he couldn't really tell the difference, couldn't really care, besides he was used to it. He crossed his arms on the table, nestled his head in the crook of his elbow, closed his eyes against the white movement, and slept.

Hands, working at a feverish pace, pulling, wrapping, pressing. A voice, yelling for open space, extra hands, someone-call-an-ambulance-now! Gasps for air, laboured breathing, am-I-going-to-die? Blood. Open, gaping flesh.

His hands. His voice.

Not his blood. Not his flesh.

Not his life, running in rivulets to the floor.

A gentle voice, calling him. He stirred, lifted his head, squinted at the blurred face looking down at him in concern, sat up and rubbed his eyes. Ten minutes already? It seemed like he'd just laid his head down. It wasn't enough. It was never enough. It was all he had. Little chunks of ten minutes like this.

Food. Warm, colourful, unlike his office. He'd kept it cold to keep himself awake. The Arctic, his staff called it, bare and cold. He still remembered the first time he'd came here, nearly one o'clock, looked at the menu and asked for the dish they'd take the longest to prepare fresh. Lasagne, the waitress had told him, confused. Seven minutes or so if the chef hurried, since there was hardly anyone else in the café. He'd told her to make it ten, and wake him up when it was done.

"Duo?"

He remembered how he'd inhaled it, how delicious it'd tasted. Everything was delicious when one was hungry. Now, though, he hardly tasted the food, and let his hands and mouth work automatically while he zoned out to get as much mind-rest as possible.

"Duo," the girl had said, a few seconds ago. Damn, this was pathetic; if it was wartime he'd be dead thousand times over, zoning out when someone was calling him. This was really pathetic. His reaction time had been instantaneous, now it was a few seconds late. He needed to pull himself together. He didn't know how to.

"Carrie," he said, acknowledging her, turning to give her a dredged-up smile, seeing the worry in her face, in the way she was standing there at the side watching him with furrowed eyebrows. Standing a few steps away. The first time she'd woken him, she'd tried to do it by shaking his shoulder. The bruise had faded after a week. That she still continued to serve him, worry about him, was a miracle.

"You look worse than usual. Busy week?"

He'd hurt an innocent. A motherly sixty-something year old woman, at that, gentle, defenceless. His being asleep at the time wasn't an excuse. It was unforgivable. He'd kept himself on unconscious alert since then, while sleeping here or anywhere where there might be someone coming near. It meant he'd gotten even less sleep than before, but that was okay, if it meant no one else got hurt.

She'd asked him a question. "Yeah," he said, picking up the fork. "Five hours reduced to three, now." More like two and a half, but she didn't need to know that. She was worried enough as it was. He was just so busy…

"You're killing yourself, Duo. You eat something as fattening as lasagne late at night yet you seem to be losing weight, fast. Most people would be at least five pounds heavier after a month of eating like you do."

He took a bite, chewed, swallowed. He hadn't tasted anything at all, like he was chewing air. "Most people aren't me."

"I can see that."

Bite, chew, swallow. "I'm fine. I'm still alive, aren't I."

"Not for long."

Bite, chew, swallow. "I need to work."

"Not like this! No matter what you're working as, no one should have to work like this."

His fork paused on the way to his mouth. "Should doesn't work in reality." Bite, chew, swallow.

She changed tactics. "Why do you work so hard? You could just quit, find another job. Or tell your boss you can't take this."

He smiled grimly. "I am the boss."

"Then make your employees share some of the responsibility!"

Bite chew, swallow. "I give them enough work to occupy them during working hours, and then a few more hours when they get home. It's enough. All of them have families, they need family time. I don't." And besides, part of the penance for part of his guilt was that he provided efficient low-cost high-quality work, to do his bit for the people, and so he couldn't hire too many workers. He needed to keep his company afloat. Fewer workers meant fewer expenses. It didn't matter that it meant more work for himself.

He couldn't tell her that, of course. She wouldn't understand. She didn't know the guilt he carried.

"A few more hours of work each won't kill them. A few less hours of work won't kill you. Again, why do you work so hard?"

Bite, chew, swallow. He didn't answer.

She sighed. Out of the corner of her eye he saw her shake her head. He took another bite. She sighed again, and left.

He appreciated her concern. He didn't deserve it.

It took him ten minutes to finish the food. It was a generous portion, slightly larger than the usual. He rather suspected Carrie was behind that. He must have looked especially bad.

He placed the utensils neatly at the side of the plate, wiped his mouth with a napkin, leaned against the booth's back while he took out his wallet and placed fifteen bucks next to the plate, then slid out of his seat and stood. Time to get home and do his work, catch his two and a half hours of sleep. Knowing how much work awaited him, it would probably be two hours, tonight. Less than two.

A few steps away from the door he paused, hearing Carrie call him. Turning, he watched her approach him, something white held in her hand. Rolled-up, good quality white sketching paper, if his tired eyes were any judge.

"Here," she said. She held the paper out. "The artist asked me to give it to you."

"The artist?" He took it warily.

"We don't know his name. These past two weeks he's been sitting around town, quick-sketching people, giving them his drawings. Usually it's the tired ones, who need cheering up, he draws them happy. He did me once. It's framed at home." She looked at him, smiled ruefully. "If there's anyone needs cheering up now, it'd be you."

Someone had been observing him, drawing him, unnoticed. Even with the best of intentions, it still sent a chill up his spine. He hadn't felt it. He should have felt it. Should didn't work in reality. He wouldn't be caught off-guard like that anymore.

"Well? Go on, open it," she said. There was eagerness and anticipation in her tone, in the wrinkle-lines on her face. It was unusual, surprising, to see her so animated. It was something he didn't want to disappoint.

He opened it.

Startled laughter, a disbelieving quirk of the lips, of eyebrows, braided hair whipping into the air with a quick, unguarded duck of his head, an abandoned movement. Arms half-raised above his face, guarding against a friendly joking blow from the top, face half-turned away. Eyes crinkled with amused mock-annoyance, looking to the side. Broad sweeping strokes, thick to thin; short powerful ones, full of energy; careless skilful shading brought out the leanness of his arms, his body, the contours of his face, the odd yet so natural angle his face was tilted at towards the light.

He half expected his black-and-white self to complete the movement, twisting his back and waist away, and leap out towards him, laughing, to avoid the blow. He could almost hear Quatre's amused admonishment to take the blow like a man, and him retaliating by straightening and tackling the blond, tickling him into submission, while Trowa watched bemused by the side and Heero and Wufei torn between smiling and muttering about little children.

He found himself looking up, around, to check for their presence, and caught himself. Carrie was exclaiming over how handsome he would look if he gained some weight and smiled more often, and he remembered a time when he did exactly that. It seemed so long ago now, but it was only what, six months since the end of the war? Six months since he'd left the others, since he'd run and hidden himself in some remote corner of the country, setting up his salvage business which was starting to become well known around the area. Six months since he'd started to try to lose himself, his past, his dreams, and become an ordinary man, and he'd succeeded.

He'd succeeded, but a little too well.

He'd succeeded, but suddenly all he wanted to do was meet his friends again. To be subjected to Quatre's all-too-knowing comments and mother-henning, to Trowa's meaningful silence and expressive looks, to Heero's blunt logic and extremely dry sense of humour, to Wufei's self-righteous rants and focussed determination. To laugh and tease and mock-fight and he was not going to cry, god dammit. He was better than that.

How the hell had the artist managed to capture the essence of who he'd been? Just like that? How had he known?

"Is this artist still here?" he asked, carefully rolling up the picture again.

Carrie shook her head. "He left immediately after he gave that to me."

"Who – no, you've said no one knows. Where can I find him, then?"

"No one knows. He goes wherever he wants to, draws whoever he wants, and disappears after he finishes a drawing. He draws someone only once, so you'll probably not meet him again."

"How does he look like?"

She smiled, amused. "Why the curiosity?"

"Because someone with this kind of talent should be out there making money, not sitting around drawing people for free." And also because I need to ask him how he knew. How he saw what he did. How he saw what I want, more than anything, right now.

"It's very nice of him, don't you think? But anyway, no one knows how to find him, like I said, he's anywhere he wants to be. You're not the first one to try, and you'll not be the first to fail if you don't find him. He's very normal, wears a cap, T-shirt, jeans, sports shoes… just your average guy on the streets. Even if you see him you won't know it's him."

He nodded, feeling the beginnings of anticipation spark inside him. "Thank you."

"No problem. See you tomorrow," she said, and as he turned and took the few steps to the exit, added, "Take care of yourself."

Bright lights, door, darkness, pause. He let his eyes adjust to the change in lighting, walked to his car, unlocked it, got in, turned the engine on. Carefully he placed the drawing on the passenger's seat, reversed the car, backed out of the lot, drove away. Somehow he wasn't as sleepy as before. Adrenaline, an old companion so long forgotten, had come back for a visit. He didn't think it would leave anytime soon.

He did so love a good challenge.

Especially a good hunt.


I think everyone but Duo knows who the artist is. If he knew this fic was a 1x2x1, I'll bet he could guess, too. -grins-

Review, please!

And don't worry, for those who are. I haven't forgotten about my other fics. I'm working on them, I swear.

Ashen Skies
"He'd succeeded, but a little too well."